Rime Allaf

Syrian residents of Khan Sheikhun hold placards and pictures on April 7, 2017 during a protest condemning a suspected chemical weapons attack on their town earlier this week that killed at least 86 people, among them 30 children, and left hundreds suffering symptoms including convulsions, vomiting or foaming at the mouth.
In the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun, site of an alleged chemical weapons attack on April 4, residents still mourning their dead welcomed US strikes earlier today as a way to pressure Damascus. The strikes targeting a Syrian forces airfield, ordered by President Donald Trump, were the first direct US military action against Syria’s government since the conflict began six years ago. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour

Many Syrians would still be alive, safe and home today had there been a response to the Assad regime’s first massive chemical massacre in 2013
Everyone seems to have misread President Trump, or at least underestimated his capacity for decisive action, considering older statements to be proof of his positions.

Indeed, his tweets to Obama appealing that he abstain from striking Assad after the massive chemical massacre of 2013 were understood by most of us as a staunch position on the matter. But Trump was neither in power, nor even a politician then; inside the Oval Office, perspectives vary, information is precise, and the quality of advisors matters.

Whereas Obama was too arrogant to admit he was ever wrong, Trump’s own legendary ego nevertheless left room for what he described as flexibility, admitting that something changed his mind
For Syrians waiting for an end to the hell raining down on them, two elements positively distanced Trump from his predecessor. Whereas President Obama intended from day one for his legacy to be a nuclear deal with Iran, and intended to do – and more importantly not to do – everything it took to achieve it, President Trump doesn’t pretend to know yet what his own specific legacy will be, beyond generally making America great again. Apart from a solid opposition to the Iran deal, he has no claim to eventual fame in the tumultuous Middle East.

And whereas President Obama was too arrogant to admit he was ever wrong, even after his infamous red line inaction resulted in doubling the number of Syrian victims, unleashing a flood of refugees from Syria, and allowing the Islamic State (IS) to strengthen, Trump’s own legendary ego nevertheless left room for what he described as flexibility, admitting that something changed his mind. Whether it was really upon seeing new images of Syrian children choking to death, or whether purely upon consultation with his senior advisors, Trump did not hesitate to change course on Syria – even if it meant going back on his word.

Russia misread

President Trump did in two days what his predecessor failed to do in six years: he showed clarity of purpose when the occasion called for direct action, an action whose consequences have yet to be determined.

When push came to shove, Russia was impotent and immobile
An abundance of commentators had warned repeatedly that eventual US attacks against the Assad regime would bring great catastrophe, including direct conflict with Russia, a complication of the war, and more Syrian civilian deaths, a matter supposedly of great concern to the suddenly vocal “Hands Off Syria” crowd which remained silent when Russian bombs tore Syrians to shreds.

But if this doomsday scenario has not materialised, it is possibly because it is Russia which misread Trump and his advisors the most.

For all the experts waxing poetic about President Putin’s chess master qualities and his alleged cunning, Russia was left with no option but to stand aside while the US carried out its punitive strike on Assad’s assets. Usually well-spoken and calm Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, could only give a disjointed, moot statement suspending cooperation with the US in Syrian airspace.

And Russia’s strange, rather lame sudden recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Thursday took even Netanyahu by surprise. When push came to shove, Russia was impotent and immobile; the presence of a smiling Chinese President Xi at Trump’s dinner table when the strike was announced merely added to the humiliation.

Five factors to consider

None of this means that Russia remains without options next time, nor indeed that there may be a next time. But this week’s developments have exposed a number of factors which can’t be brushed aside again. They are on the table.

First, Assad’s blatant renewed use of chemical weapons demonstrates that Russia is either unable or unwilling – or both – to rein him in. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bluntly stated: “Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility. Either Russia has been complicit or either Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.”

It is the presence of General McMaster, and that of General Mattis at the head of the Pentagon, which is likely to have shaped President Trump’s swift action
Second, the fact that the Assad regime did not hand over all of its chemical arsenal means that someone still has to rid him of it. According to National Security Advisor General HR McMaster, the US strike was targeted to avoid a storage unit that was stockpiling the nerve agent in order to protect civilians.

Third, in contrast to the Obama administration’s attempts to minimise the strike that never was, the Trump administration is neither shy nor apologetic about its actions: “This was not a small strike,” McMaster said.

Fourth, while the strike was a response to the specific use of chemicals, it is hard to envisage that the Trump administration will retreat from condemning, and possibly acting on mass killings by other means in Syria. Statements from various cabinet members have indicated a much stronger involvement that initially planned.

Finally, the surprise reshuffle in the National Security Council and the removal of Steve Bannon from it, days before the US took action against Assad, seems to have finally placed the right advisors at their rightful places, giving studied and measured assessments.

It is the presence of McMaster, and that of General James Mattis at the head of the Pentagon, which is likely to have shaped President Trump’s swift action. Both these senior military advisors happen to have remarkable acumen and experience in Middle East matters in particular; while their personal positions on Syria are not yet public, their history in the region implies an understanding that fighting IS while ignoring the Assad regime would be counterproductive, especially when Islamist extremists use Western inaction as rallying cries.

The right signals

In one fell swoop, President Trump’s strike on Assad has exposed the limits of Russian bravado and revived the notion of a coalition to change the status quo.

While he did not repeat the empty “Assad has to go” mantra, Trump’s address to the nation, calling “on all civilised nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria” seems to be a sign that the US is, finally, reclaiming a leadership position under the careful guidance of able and experienced military advisors.

Many Syrians would still be alive, safe and home today had there been a response to the Assad regime’s first massive chemical massacre in 2013. While Trump cannot undo the damage, his administration has now signalled it is both able and ready to solve the conflict.

– Rime Allaf is a Syrian-born writer and political analyst. She was an Associate Fellow at Chatham House from 2004 to 2012, in the Middle East and North Africa Programme. She has published numerous analyses and articles on the region, with Syria being the focus of her area of expertise, and continues to write, speak and advise on Syrian affairs. She is on the Board of Directors of The Day After, a renowned Syrian-led civil society organisation working to support a democratic transition in Syria, with grants from several Western institutes and governments. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Syrian Economic Forum, a think tank working on building a strong economy to support a free, pluralistic and independent state.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.